METABOLIC POP – The Dietary Troubles of a Mediated Self

For years now, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that my body is thinking alongside me, that my gut is involved in my writing as much as my brain ever was, and that when things go well or awry, they are either a consequence of “collective” effort or fault. So when I recently wrote that my gut likes Taylor Swift more than I do and that it likes her on a microbial level, it rang true. We might usually think of pop in terms of light, up-beat tunes and pleasant, albeit flashy, personas that deliver them to us, but as these tunes sync with the cravings and urges imposed by our churning tummies, with the shifting moods and inclinations caused by the gut microbiota running them, pop can start to show itself in a very different light. When we take into consideration our permeable bodies and ever more anxious selves, what is the actual efficacy of pop?  

Popular culture has probably never been more overzealous in its strive for our attention. Consumer technology and social media have made it possible that its imagery and soundscapes reach deep into the realm of the personal, intimate, and the bodily, inadvertently changing the way how we interact and relate to the prominent themes and figures of this culture. While it used to be that popular characters, celebrities, idols, and alike were idealised from afar (through fan clubs and dedicated media) – what the British psychologist David Smail described as being an expression of the common need for association with powerful others (i.e. need for associative power, or an expressive lack thereof) –, it appears that this relationship has gradually shifted and now occupies a space of peculiar vicinity instead. Pop-culture-inspired movements like #freebritney are drawing their momentum from speculative (bordering on telepathic) interactions with their celebrity. They analyse every detail, discern even the faintest of hidden meanings, all for the joint project of shedding some light on the well-being of the pop star; replacing the voyeuristic complex of mere ‘association with a powerful other’ with a more direct and active relationship of vigilance and care for the other, who might not be quite as powerful. Such shifts are clearly morphing the relationship between the pop figure and its audience, but could they also hold some significance for the understanding of the broader dynamics of mediated subjectivity (subjectivity defined by the new media landscape)?

In our writing, I aim to trace the vestiges of agency in the alienated figures of pop culture’s past and reflect upon their potential for the future struggles of the ever-evolving media landscape. With the advent of social media, the predatory tabloid system might have lost its mainstream appeal, but our carefully nurtured appetites for its content remained, preserving the somewhat gluttonous tone that the term consumption (i.e. consumerism) resonates with. Instead of enigmatic sparkly treats, – the pop stars, the idols, the celebrities – this pervasive hunger now seems to demand all of us. A sort of autophagy, eating ourselves away and metabolising a subjectivity that can develop in two different ways. Either it succumbs to the draining, dopamine-depleting forces of despotic, corporate media; ending up as passive matter, stuck in its self-depleting metabolic boot-loop. Or it finds a way to adapt. Grim as it may sound, autophagy is also one of the essential cellular processes, whose function is to degrade the toxic waste of the cell. Might there be a similar function to the self-digesting tendency of our contemporary selves? Can the same media, that have ensnared us in their sweet, dopamine-promising trap, also bring us to an adaptive opening through which a new form of agency could arise?

Domen Ograjenšek is a writer, art critic, and curator. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University in Ljubljana. Currently lives in Vienna.